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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Maybe, just maybe spring is finally on its way after a bruising winter for much of the country. Even in parts of North Dakota today the temperature got close to 50 degrees. Still there is this remnant of winter: high energy bills. And for lower-income residents, a hefty heating bill can be an especially big burden. NPR's Andrea Hsu went to Knoxville, Tennessee, to hear how that city is trying to help those most vulnerable.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Think about cold weather states and Tennessee is probably not one that comes to mind. But spend a few minutes in the customer call center of the Knoxville Utilities Board and you get a sense of what kind of winter it's been.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So would you be able to pay that by 5:00 p.m. tomorrow or did you need a further extension?

HSU: The utility has been urging people: if you think you cannot pay your bill, call us. We'll see what we can do.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So the amount to avoid the service interruption right now, let me get that for you here. It'll take me just a moment.

HSU: It was the coldest January Knoxville has seen since 1985. On average gas bills were up nearly 30 percent from a year ago. But that's an average. For the poor it's been even worse. Jeanie Fox is a customer counselor.

JEANIE FOX: It's mostly the old homes, people that rent, folks that are on fixed income and lower income, their housing stock is not as good. They're the ones that have suffered.

HSU: Most low-income housing here is energy inefficient. We're talking drafty windows and doors, old heating systems, little or no insulation and monstrous bills. And so every year social workers at the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee field thousands of requests for help. All day long they meet people like Bridget Caldwell.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi, how may I help you?

BRIDGET CALDWELL: I'm a caregiver for someone who's in a wheelchair and he called...

HSU: Caldwell has come to apply for energy assistance on behalf of the man she works for.

CALDWELL: ...and I was wanting to get an application for myself as well.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK. Why don't we start with you?

CALDWELL: OK.

HSU: They've both received final notices, meaning they've got to pay something or their utilities will be cut off. They both usually pay on time but this winter has set them back. Caldwell, a single mom, owes $260, more than a quarter of her monthly income. The man she looks after owes almost $450, well over half his Social Security check.

CECELIA WATERS: These are current charges and this is kind of what we're seeing.

HSU: Cecelia Waters, director of energy and community services here, has processed these requests year after year for more than a decade. They come from the elderly, the disabled and families with children.

WATERS: It's a teeter-totter. You sometimes have to make choices between utilities and rent.

HSU: This year the federal government is spending more than $3 billion on energy assistance for the poor. Knoxville and Knox County expect to get around $3 million of that. And the average grant is a one-time payment of $381. It goes directly to the utility. The program is a Band-Aid of sorts but Waters says one that works.

WATERS: It's here and it keeps a lot of families stable.

HSU: The waiting list for energy assistance is now more than 3,000 families long. Waters is anticipating another chunk of federal funds soon. For the most pressing cases, she's turning to churches and other nonprofits, even the Knoxville Utilities Board, for help. Still since the middle of December, the utility has disconnected more than 3,400 customers. Everyone here recognizes this is a perennial problem. Jake Tisinger is with the city's Office of Sustainability.

JAKE TISINGER: I don't think anybody wants to - you know, no churches out there want to keep donating just to pay utility bills. They want to solve a problem and they want to make sure families are staying in their homes and being able to live a normal life.

HSU: And the city believes the key to doing that is weatherization. The idea of weather-proofing low-income housing has been around for decades. The Recovery Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus bill, allocated record amounts of money for weatherization, $5 billion to be used over three years. Knoxville got $6 million, a windfall. Jason Estes who's in charge of Knoxville's weatherization program says it allowed them to work on some 1,500 homes, including one belonging to a former coal miner and his wife. In the winter, their utility bill would soar to $800 a month.

JASON ESTES: They wore two layers of clothes and socks. He actually wore a hat to bed. Where he laid his head there was air coming through the window. He joked about it and said he kind of looked pretty funny he guessed, but you have to do what you have to do. And they were always glad when the spring came.

HSU: Estes, who's a general contractor by training, ticked through all the improvements that weatherization funds paid for.

ESTES: We put a new heat and air system in. We wrapped the water heater. We fixed the broken windows and we calked all the doors and windows, replaced lighting...

HSU: When all was done the couple's energy use was cut in half. But here's the rub. Weatherization is expensive, as much as $6,500 a house. Estes says typically you'll get 20 percent energy savings, so it could be 15 to 20 years before the work pays for itself. But Estes says the payoff for those in need is immediate.

ESTES: Somebody that's getting $800 to $1,000 a month to live on and they have to make those choices between do I pay my utility bill, do I buy my medicine, do I buy food, well that $25, $75 a month that they might save is huge.

HSU: Lately Jason Estes has been trying to figure out new strategies. He's working on a database to show which pockets of the city have the highest energy bills, who's getting the most energy assistance and how folks in weatherized homes are doing. If someone's still asking for help, he wants to know why.

ESTES: Maybe they're not changing their behavior. Maybe they're letting more people move in or maybe something has happened and we need to identify what's changed for that weatherization not to be saving them money.

HSU: Estes would love to weatherize much more of the city's affordable housing but right now that's a pipe dream. Since the Recovery Act, support for weatherization has plummeted. Department of Energy audits in other parts of the country, even elsewhere in Tennessee, found widespread waste and fraud and egregious examples of shoddy work.

ESTES: That is very frustrating, and it's a battle that we have to continue to contain and deal with, because it affects funding. Currently we have 789 people on the waiting list for weatherization, and I have zero funding.

HSU: So for now, the yearly ritual of stopgap utility payments will go on as imperfect as it is. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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